Grow Your Own Food is an information series on gardening in Canada that will get you started on the right foot and help you every step of the way to having the garden you dream of! This series was originally written for and published on Food Bloggers of Canada.
You have decided that this year you will grow your own food and you are considering starting some of those seeds indoors to get a bit of a head start on the season. It is a great practice that is inexpensive and gives you the opportunity to have a bumper crop!
When and How to Plant Seeds Indoors
Looking to the seeds we want to start early we need a bit of information off the seed package to pick a planting date. The first thing we look for is how many weeks BEFORE your last frost that the seeds should be started. That assures your plants will be old and strong enough to handle the move out doors. Also it gives you a good idea if the crop will be finished before your first frost in the fall. As mentioned before, be sure to buy seeds that will grow and be harvestable in your areas growing season.
The second bit of information you are looking for on the package is how to plant. Each seed has different needs as to depth and spacing. It will also tell you how long it takes for the seeds to germinate. Be aware of these numbers and mark your trays so you know what each contains. Many seedlings look the same until they grow their 3rd set of leaves.
This is also something to keep in mind if you are directly seeding into the garden. In the garden be sure to use wood pegs and strings to mark your rows. Not only will you have nice straight lines it is also a guide to help you differentiate vegetable seedlings from weed seedlings. And as the garden grows resist the urge to pull the string markers out until you can tell vegetables from weeds, a good rule of thumbs is to wait until they have a good 3 inches of growth.
Light, Water, Warmth and Wind
If you have ever started seeds indoors you may have noticed they sprout and start off really nice. Then they start to stretch out and become very spindly and do not do much more then that. Rarely will they get their second set of leaves and are a very light green. There is simply not enough light. The idea of growing plants on the window sill is lovely but very unrealistic. Even the tiniest of seedling need light, lots of light. Much more then what comes though the windows.
Fluorescent lights and fixtures are very inexpensive and are easy to set up and operate. And you are saving a ton of money. For just a portion of what you would spend at the greenhouse on plants could get you all you need to start and grow your entire garden. I started out with a few 4 foot fixtures on over turned milk crates. It does not have to be fancy or expensive.
If you are not in a position to buy any type of lights I still encourage you to start at least some flower seeds indoors, petunias and lobelia are great options as they are slower growers. For a head start on peppers and tomatoes I do suggest that you buy those plants from a greenhouse or garden center. They require stronger light as they grow much faster and will become leggy if they are not under lights.
When I am germinating seeds I use a cover on the tray to raise the humidity and to contain heat. Seeds need moisture and warmth to germinate. Once a tray is planted I will place it on an electric heating pad under the lights. This can at times speed up the germination process by quite a few days. If you do not have a heating pad find a really nice warm area of your home. Be sure to wipe down the insides of the cover using a clean towel at least once a day. This airs out the tray and also helps prevent too much moisture building up. Once the seedlings sprout remove the lid completely.
Lower the lights as close as you can get them to the plants without touching them. The great thing about using fluorescent lights is they stay nice and cool. So even if a seedling does touch a bulb, it will be fine. They do not generate enough heat to burn the leaves.
If you are using a light turn it on in the morning and off when you go to bed at night, just as the day are getting longer as we approach spring you can run the lights with those hours. If you are growing with natural light place the seedlings in the sunniest spot available, a south facing window is best.
When they are this young I do not fertilize them at all. Make sure the soil is wet, but not too wet, you do not want the seedlings to drown. To water them, I suggest filling the tray with water so the soil can soak it up from the bottom. It does not disturb the tender seedlings and keeps the soil in place.
I will fill my tray with water and allow it to soak for about 20 minutes then I carefully drain the rest of the remaining water out. All you do now is to check on them daily for moisture and let them grow.
Your goal when growing indoors is to duplicate Mother Nature as best you can. So along with with lights and water you also need to think about wind. In nature wind makes plants stronger as does it indoors. You want to be sure your plants are strong and healthy so they can handle the transition when they are moved to the outdoors.
As soon as my seedlings have their first set of leaves I turn a fan on for a minimum of 30 minutes a day. This assures they will have nice strong stems long before they ever feel real wind. I do spray all my seedling with water before I turn the fan on to be sure I do not dry them out.